Mothers bar response is a model for student activism
We throw around a lot of meaningless, quasi-inspirational slogans about creating change. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world,” we say, channeling Margaret Mead. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” we quote, citing Gandhi but certainly not in the context of personal hunger strikes or asceticism.
We hang words like these on colorful posters and post them on our Facebook profiles, and as they become cliché, we forget to evaluate the effectiveness of our activism. We accept even the most miniscule and irrelevant of actions—recycling a piece of paper, for instance—as serious steps toward societal change rather than enforce more rigorous standards of responsibility.
Deciding to change the world is easy; figuring out how is nearly impossible. As I consider my future career path, this question has become particularly important to me. I want my time and efforts to be effective, and I am unsure how to make them so. Are political campaigns effective vehicles for change? Is direct participation in politics even necessary for change? Does sharing my opinions with whoever cares to read them count as activism?
As students, it is easy to fall into one of two traps: Either we think we can accomplish anything, or we think we can accomplish nothing. Neither the extreme idealism nor cynicism satisfies me. I think student activism can be effective, but I want to see results. I do not accept the nihilistic view of our potential, but I also do not I think all forms of activism are created equal.
It is within this context that I find myself stunned and deeply impressed that the Mothers bar incident has received national media coverage. While I had strong initial doubts about the efficacy of the student protest organized that weekend, it is now clear that Wash. U. students are on the path toward actually changing the behavior of Mothers bar. The goal is not yet accomplished, but the progress is genuinely inspiring.
Protests, press releases, lawsuits and formal complaints are not a typical part of the daily Wash. U. experience. Political activism is too often limited to voting every four years or waving a sign when the Commission on Presidential Debates comes to town. I am therefore glad to see Wash. U. students focusing their response to this incident on results-oriented change.
Our task is far from complete in eradicating racism from our country and our community, and unfortunately the occasional forum or eloquent dialogue, while perhaps helpful, is an insufficient means of change. Instead we must confront acts of discrimination head on.
I have yet to discover the perfect formula for effective activism. The Mothers bar incident is a reminder, however, that we cannot allow our uncertainties to prevent us from acting against injustice. We owe it to ourselves and our world to take action, real action, to confront the problems that we know must change.
The initial (albeit incomplete) success of the Wash. U. response to this incident is proof that students do have a voice and can make a difference. At the same time, it reminds us that activism must be focused and strategic. It cannot be just a suboptimally timed protest; it must involve our fullest talents and capabilities.
As Wash. U. students, we can contribute a great deal to the fight for social justice. So far, the response to the Mothers bar incident is a pretty good model for how to proceed.